The short answer to "How can a team replace a Brian Dawkins?" is "You can't". However, we may be at or near the point where we can no longer avoid the question. It is entirely possible that Brian Dawkins will not be playing in 2012. And even if he does, the last two games have made very clear that his main contribution might be as a veteran presence - sometimes on the field. For the sake of his long-term health, we will not be able to rely on 16 games of hard-hitting plays. So what is the answer to this question when the short answer no longer suffices?Brian Dawkins obviously brings Hall of Fame caliber field presence/experience. That is clearly irreplaceable but is there a way the Broncos can cobble something together if Dawk retires? That is far too much to expect of rookie safeties, David Bruton hasn't shown that so far, and moving that responsibility forward to MLB - Joe Mays , Nate Irving, Mike Mohamed - is probably unworkable with a)rookies and b)a pass-heavy NFL. We can potentially cobble something together for 2012 with Champ Bailey on one side of the field and DJ Williams on the other - but that risks taking Champ out of coverage v some teams with strong #1WR's and/or some offensive schemes. This problem really only resolves itself if/when Champ slides out of CB and into a S role -- but Champ is definitely not a SS and we would be doing ourselves (and his long-term health) a huge disservice thinking we can ultimately (or even temporarily) move him into that role. This is more a short-term than a long-term problem. Short-term, there may not be a solution.
Skill-wise, we have a short-term and a long-term problem. Like most NFL teams, we have moved towards "tweener" safeties (FS/SS) as the NFL passing game has gotten deeper and faster. David Bruton and Quinton Carter both fit this mold. Rahim Moore - and ultimately Champ - are more pure free safeties (last line of defense). But tweener safeties are at real risk against two types of offenses -- multiple big-back running threat offenses or multiple big-tonnage receiving threats (only NE really has this one so far - but I see other teams getting this one ready). To deal with that - and with Dawkins retiring either this off-season - or soon enough - we need a big SS who can bring down the big RB's/TE's for a full season. We don't have that.
For 2012, I see only one free agent SS who fits this mold of a pure big strong safety type (rather than a tweener FS/SS type) - LaRon Landry. And any time there is only one free agent, it's a safe bet they won't make it to FA. Hamza Abdullah , Reshard Langford, and Bryan Scott also fit the mold - but they are either injury-prone or are really only special teams players (a la David Bruton). So I don't see a FA solution. Maybe a veteran top-tier MLB but that means giving up on Mays/Irving/Mohammed.
The 2012 draft has a few players who may fit the mold with starter upside. Most of them are either currently playing strong safety or are undersized LB's who have either the DB or pass coverage experience - and the smarts/athleticism to handle a different role. Think of the latter as smaller/faster/coverage Wesley Woodyards - tweener SS/LB's.
Mark Barron - Alabama. Starter/elite upside. #5 ranked athlete (multi position type player) out of HS (where he was a WR, LB, RB, SS). He's not a "value" pick at our draft slot -- but not a reach either. A good choice if no higher BPA's fall to our draft slot. Like all strong safeties, doesn't have the afterburner speed of a free safety/cornerback - but has the size to tackle the bigger RB's and TE's.
Ray Ray Armstrong - Miami. Starter/elite upside. Will likely return to school for senior season. Was the #1 ranked athlete out of HS the year after Mark Barron. In his case, he projected as a S, OLB, RDE, TE, WR. Got caught in a typical NCAA rules violation so didn't get to play as much in 2011 as he needed to come out early.
LaVonte David - Nebraska. An undersized MLB. Was the MLB on the Miami HS that went undefeated in 2007 (w Sean Spence, Marcus Forston, etc) and was ranked low (and not recruited) at MLB because of his size. So he went the juco route and is now a (still) undersized MLB at Nebraska. Not sure he has safety speed - but he has everything else - coverage skills, LB tackling mentality, field awareness/leadership,
Sean Spence - Miami. A tweener LB/SS. Starter upside talent - but undersized for NFL LB. Fast as lightning with good instincts. Question is whether he can transition to strong safety as he hasn't played the position. He seems more like a point-and-shoot torpedo. Has the athleticism and skills but will likely be most valuable initially as a blitzing safety, running plays, or special teams.
Ramon Buchanan - Miami. Starter/elite upside with a 10cent head. Was the #2 ranked safety out of HS (Aaron Williams #1, Rahim Moore #3). Some character issues - but mostly he added 40 lbs to play LB in college and got stuck in a SS/LB "tweener" role - with the added problem of playing time because of Sean Spence and Ray Ray Armstrong on the same team - plus suspensions. He could be a steal in the later rounds -- but he is definitely a project.
Kenny Tate - Maryland. Another LB/SS tweener. Came out of HS as WR. Started playing as a S, has switched to LB. He's got the size to potentially bulk up to LB but most likely he'll be a SS in the NFL.
4th round or later
Harrison Smith - Notre Dame.
Tony Dye - UCLA
Karnell Hatcher - LSU. Tweener LB/SS. Injury in his senior year causes his draft stock to plunge. May not have the speed of a safety.
Avoid (not that I think they are bad -- but I think the risk is that their upside is no better than special teams or that they are really FS/SS tweeners and we've already got that covered)
Dawk's injury - and the obvious hole we have seen it create in the last two games - is scaring me a bit. It looks a bit unsolvable right now. Am I just panicking?